As an educator, I have had so many moments that have taken my breath away; working with kids, we often find ourselves truly inspired. On Thursday, April 14th, 2011, I had the privilege of being inspired by every student at our school in a way that I can honestly say, had me leave the school that evening with a memory of the best day I have ever had as an educator.
The idea of Identity Day started at Forest Green School in Stony Plain, Alberta and was shared with the world by George Couros. I presented this idea to our staff in 2010 and they agreed that they would be willing to take a risk for kids and give the idea a try. Part of our school goal is to have our students “develop their unique talents and interests” so this idea felt like it was made for our school.
The idea behind Identity Day is that students create a project on themselves; there is no criteria, no grades, and no set topics. Students were encouraged to design a demonstration, video, powerpoint, slideshow, poster, display or anything that would help the audience to learn something about them. (see Prezi on Identity Day here). The idea was that each student and staff member would present in a way that shared a talent or interest about themselves.
My project on the "Wejr Family"
Students were given about a month to prepare their projects along with some class time. Families were encouraged to be involved and those students that struggled were given extra support from older students and staff members. After presenting to each class, I was not sure how the day would go (whenever I bring a different idea/event to the school, I get nervous about the result); there was not a whole lot of interest a few weeks before… but when students began to bring in their projects a few days prior, we could feel a huge buzz in the school. Kids were bringing in Lego, pictures, books, posters, stuffed animals, sports memorabilia and equipment – the students were beaming with pride about their projects.
The day of our fair was nothing short of brilliant. Each class hosted the other classes at one point during the day. Kids were so excited to teach
A Grade 5 student's project on "Lego"
others about what was important to them! We had students bring in all sorts of animals (including a goat!) as well as so many things that were meaningful to the students and staff. They presented and taught others everything from “stuffies” to “animals” to “sports teams” as well as things more personal like “things I like” to “my family”.
It is so difficult to put the day in words; you had to be in our school to truly get a sense of the pride and excitement in our students. Our school was full of parents, community members and students all genuinely interested in each other. I learned more about our students in one day than I do in an entire year!
Because of Identity Day, I can now approach any child in the school and have a conversation about something in which they are interested. In the past week, I have stopped students to ask about dance, Lego, their family, and various sports. What better way to have students proud of who they are than to have them showcase…. who they are!
Every child has a gift; it is up to us, as educators, to create the environment that encourages the student to develop this strength and passion. Identity Day is one example of the many things we are trying to do at Kent School to help children find their gifts. If you have any questions on bringing Identity Day to your school, please comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mrwejr.
I want to thank the students, families and staff of Kent Elementary for their outstanding efforts. Also, thank you to George and his school for the idea and the encouragement to bring something truly amazing and inspiring to our school.
Here is a video that includes a few of the projects from Kent’s version of Identity Day:
“There’s no future in dance”. This horrible statement was made to my wife, Tonya, in her grade 11 year of high school. Here is her story:
For as long as Tonya can remember, she has been a dancer. This girl knew her passion at a very young age; her life was spent in the studio and on the stage. At 7 years of age, she performed in the motion picture, Housekeeping. She taught dance in her early teens to help pay for her dance fees (her mother also helped clean the studio). She thrived at dance and was a provincial rep for a number of years which provided her the opportunity to showcase her talents alongside some of the best artists in British Columbia each year. Along with dance, Tonya loved musical theatre; she was involved in musicals each year up until she graduated high school.
A few years ago, I asked my wife how often she was able to bring her passion and strength in dance into her schooling; she only remembered the one time in elementary school where she was encouraged to perform in front her peers. Growing up, dance was all she knew; school was far from dance. She did ‘well enough’ in school, struggled in certain areas, but excelled in the arts.
In grade 11, Tonya met with the school counselor to go over possible career paths. All she had ever thought about was dance – teaching, choreographing, and performing. The counselor was very blunt and told her that she should probably consider other options because a career in dance was likely not to happen. She walked out of that office thinking that her best option would be in the field of secretarial/office management. However, being the person she was, her thoughts shifted back to dance and she did not pay much attention to the counselor and thus, continued to perform and teach. She soon realized that her dream also included owning and directing her own dance studio.
Let me catch you up on what she has done since then:
Following graduation, she worked as a teacher and began to audition for certain dance roles. She landed roles in music videos, a major motion picture Center Stage: Turn it Up, as well as a place in the top 100 of So You Think You Can Dance Canada. (She also taught hip hop classes at a certain high school which caught the eye of a certain high school PE teacher who may or may not have written this blog).
Tonya Wejr on So You Think You Can Dance Canada
She spent 2 years going to school to complete her Royal Academy of Dance teaching program. Tonya worked at a few different dance studios and in the summer of 2007, reached her dream goal and opened Kick It Up A Notch Academy of Dance. Her philosophy as a teacher is much more than just teaching dance; she is a coach, a mentor, a friend, and a leader; she has inspired many dancers with her creative choreography and passionate teaching style. With over 100 students at her studio along with passionate teachers, Tonya’s love for dance is spreading to young students every year. I get emotional every year at the Year End Performance when her dancers showcase their unreal talents and love for their art.
What would have happened if she had listened to her counselor and her school’s recommendation? Has Tonya excelled because of the education system or in spite of the education system? How many students are pushed away from the arts and directed to focus on something that is a “real world skill” or “practical” skill? Many of Tonya’s students give up their love of dance to ‘focus on their academics’ in school; university may be a great option for some but I often wonder how many great artists are leaving the field to enter one in which they may not have that same passion.
STORY 2: A Photographer Is Born… 25 years later.
I met Sarah Funk this past year on Twitter (we actually went to preschool together). Since then, we have hired her a few times for professional photography sessions for my family. Sarah is amazing at what she does and through our conversations, I realized that she has not always been provided with the opportunity to focus on her art. Here is her story:
Sarah’s interest in the arts started in dance when she began Highland Dancing at the age of 4. Music was also a large part of her life growing up; she loved it and excelled at from age 8. Her father always had a camera around; in fact, his camera from when she was a child is sitting in her home today. She remembers picking up that camera on and off throughout growing up but did not take it seriously until after high school when something drove her to learn more about the art of photography. At that time it was mostly just flowers and nature, nothing serious. Having children only fueled this passion for photography and she began to want to translate images in her head into a photograph. From there, her passion has grown into a successful business based on one of the top photographers in the Fraser Valley, Silver Lamb Studios.
Thinking back, she can’t even recall what her school offered in terms of photography. She does recall, that with art programs, they fell to electives and because you only had so many electives that sometimes, your art had to be left behind to pursue the academic courses. It was made very clear to her by her school that she needed to complete and do well in academic classes to get into a University. She remembers it being a very pro-University environment. In Grade 12, she actually took a music class, even though she did not get a credit for it (because she already had a “different art credit”); she took it because she loved it.
She went to University, because that’s what she was told you had to do after high school to get anywhere or get a good job. It wasn’t pushed on her by her parents but more from the education system. At the time, she thought the RCMP was the career path for her and she was told a post-secondary education would give her an edge in the field. She studied Criminology and although she enjoyed it, none of the possible career areas excited her. So after receiving her Criminology diploma and leaving university, she worked in various retail jobs until she became a mother and stopped working outside of the home. Only then was she provided with the opportunity to explore her interest in photography. She began taking photos of her children and family; at that point she knew her
A photos of one of my daughters - taken from Sarah Funk
purpose, her passion – her love of photography had returned and has since grown into a key part of her life.
I am thankful for her love of photography, her art fills our homes with beautiful captured memories.
When I asked Sarah what advice she would give to a student interested in photography, she responded “I think I would tell the child to follow their passion. Both my husband and I are prime examples of going to school for one thing and ended up in a totally different field. I really believe that you can make a living from anything. It makes a tremendous difference working when you are doing something you love. I never ever thought that I would be able to say that.”
Sarah was directed into a field, away from her passion of the arts, by a system. I am so thankful that she returned to her passions later in life but I often wonder how many people do not get this opportunity? How many people disregard their passions for the arts because of a system that pushes people into a certain direction? Is a university education the ideal option? Why does “keeping your doors open” often mean focusing on academics?
In a system that is continually trying to just survive with shrinking budgets, how many arts courses are being cut? If a child is in a small community and has a passion and talent for theatre but there are not enough students to run a program, what happens to this child’s strength?
Reading and listening to people like Sarah, my wife Tonya, as well as renown speaker Sir Ken Robinson makes me reflect on the academic hierarchy that is present in our education system. Numeracy and literacy are very important skills for our students but at what point do we put too much emphasis on academics and lose sight of what is important for all our students?
I want my children and students to have the opportunity to be part of an education system that encourages them to follow their passions and lead a flourishing life and not one that directs them into a path determined by system hierarchy.
Thank you to Sarah Funk and Tonya Wejr for their stories.
If you have not seen this TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, by Sir Ken Robinson, it is well worth the 18 minutes.
Today I had the privilege of being invited to attend presentations from students in the teacher education program (TEP) at the University of Fraser Valley (Chilliwack). Being from a relatively small district, our administrators are often involved in interviewing and hiring; today was an opportunity to see and hear what some of our future teachers believe is important in the world of education.
We were to listen to a very short presentation from each student and then provide some feedback. One would think that after 18 presentations, I would be tired, hungry, and unfocused. In actuality, at no point during the day did I feel this way; I felt quite the opposite, I felt energized and excited to see such passionate and motivated people ready to teach and learn in our schools. Listening to these students made me want to be teaching more in the classroom; I felt like wanted to be teaching in the classroom next to them and then collaborate with them on how we can better the current system of education.
Following the presentations, I had a chance to write down some common themes that the students from the TEP program highlighted:
Meet student where they are: although these student-teachers had only been in a classroom for a few months, I was amazed at the examples of ways in which they engaged their students and learned from them the most effective ways to teach them.
How we teach is what we teach: I mentioned the importance of modeling in my previous blog; the presenters today were not only talking the talk, but walking the walk
Arts ARE important: I was pleasantly surprised at how many students were passionate about the arts. From music to drama to visual arts, the teachers discussed how important fine arts was in education. Sir Ken Robinson would have been proud!
Assessment for Learning: the teachers spoke of the many ways to have students demonstrate their learning; it gave me hope that the days of a summative-assessment-dominated world may be in the past. There are so many ways to assess that go beyond the traditional pen and paper tests and quizzes. Assessment is NOT an event, it is ongoing.
Risk takers: these new teachers are questioning the way things are done and trying new, innovative ways to encourage student learning.
Tapping into strengths: we often hear of teachers tapping into their students’ strengths; it appears that these teachers are not only doing this but have also tapped into their own strengths and are bringing these talents into the schools
Community: each presenter mentioned something about community; global citizenship, local community resources, and professional learning communities were all discussed. These teachers understand the movement from “me to we”.
Connections and Relationships: there were so many examples of memorable connections that were made with a student or class. Effective teaching and learning can only result with the care and trust that results from positive relationships.
ASCD: very impressive to see how many of these teachers are already involved in the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development. A great way to stay up to date with latest research on teaching and learning.
PASSION: I was in awe of the passion in the voices of these new teachers… enough said.
I want to thank UFV for inviting our district to attend these presentations. I had a wonderful day and if Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, is accurate in stating that our first impressions are generally correct, then from the 10 minute conversation we had with these student-teachers, my impression is that our future students are in good hands.
As an aside, at my school there are many experienced teachers that have this passion and caring quality about teaching and learning. Unfortunately, experienced teachers never get to do a short presentation on what they think about education; they never get a chance to showcase their talents. All teachers need a chance to brag a little about the amazing things that they do with kids and maybe this is something we need to do more of in schools.
On April 26th, I had the privilege of attending the Windows of Opportunity seminar in Nanaimo, BC that featured world renown author, speaker, and educator Sir Ken Robinson. He did not disappoint as he used his dry wit to not only entertain the audience but also motivate us to participate with him in his educational revolution.
Although there were too many things to possibly write down, here are a few key thoughts (paraphrased):
“All people have talents; some find them while others do not… Some are provided with ample opportunity to showcase their talents in the school system; many have talents that are not emphasized in the current system… the education system needs to provide opportunities for students to reveal their talents.“
“The education system does not often respond to who students are.”
“It’s very hard to know what we take for granted… Because we take it for granted!”
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save the country.“— Abraham Lincoln
“Our current education system was designed for the industrial revolution and remains a manufacturing process where conformity, standardization and linearity is the norm.”
“School subjects are still divided into “useful” and “useless” according to the opinions of society/schools.Things that are useful are those that lead to university or can supposedly get you a job.Those that are considered useless are things like the arts.”
“We often punish people by taking away the things they enjoy doing.”
“Human life is not linear but our education systems are; human life is inherently creative.”
“We are in a state of cultural evolution.”
Flowers came to life in Death Valley following the extremely rare rainfall in 2005.
“Analogy of gardening: Gardeners do not grow plants – plants grow themselves.Gardeners provide the optimal environment for plants to flourish (sunlight/shade, water, heat, etc).One environment can cause one type of plant to flourish while another to die or become dormant.In Death Valley in 2005, it rained 7 inches.In an environment that was supposedly ‘dead’ of plant life, under the right conditions, a beautiful layer of flowers formed.Under the right environment, people flourish.”
“Education must be personalized, not standardized.”
Anaïs Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” “We have no choice but to push the system and start to blossom.”